Leprosy is a chronic but curable infection; it causes skin lesions and nerve damage in the body's extremities – such as the face, hands, feet and arms – that can lead to significant disfigurement, disability and stigmatization. At one time, leprosy was common worldwide but most cases are now reported in Brazil, India and Indonesia.
Curative therapy for leprosy was introduced in 1981 and since 1995 has been provided free to all patients via control programmes guided by the World Health Organisation, this has led to a 90% reduction in the global prevalence of leprosy.
Leprosy is due to infection with the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae. It is still not fully understood how infection is transmitted between people; it is suggested that bacteria released in nasal secretions from highly infectious patients may be the route of transmission. Routine contact with leprosy patients does not spread infection. Most people exposed to the infection will not develop disease.
Initially, infection causes no symptoms and may remain this way for a period of 2–12+ years. Symptoms that develop may include skin lesions and inflammation of nerves; this can result in a lack of ability to feel pain, which can lead to disability and deformity resulting from trauma and secondary skin infection.
Leprosy is curable with a combination of antibiotics, known as multidrug therapy.
The risk of leprosy for the average travellers is extremely low. The risk is greater for those working closely with untreated highly infectious patients in a healthcare setting or volunteers in a leprosy centre who should be aware of the risk and have regular health checks.